I’m having a drink with Aleya, at Mercury ABC, her of formerly Story Moja Hay Festival, writer and a contender of literary greatness. People stare, especially young Muhindis with spiky hair. We get talking about race and she goes off on a tangent. “How about you put that in writing?” I ask her because when Aleya writes it’s like looking through a clear polished glass.
By ALEYA KASSAM.
I almost married a black man.
My word count does not favour lengthy politically correct terminology, so if you are already offended, you should stop reading. Biko’s forehead runs a tight ship. Besides, this is going to get more uncomfortable.
He was a dreadlocked mechanic with that irresistible sanifu Swahili and a surprising wit. In the unromantic landscape of Bungoma town, we fell in love. A shielded bubble of passion. We were together for three years and what started out probably as a fetishized romance, grew into a solid partnership. Our love took the shape of a gigantic middle finger pointed upwards, at the societal taboo of brown/black love. We were going to show the world. Love can conquer race!
Then he cheated on me. And, in a series of poorly covered up coital indiscretions, he stole my hopes of our being the poster couple for colourless love.
If this were Bollywood, what would have actually taken place is an intervention by concerned family, interspersed with dramatic pauses, mournful song and tearful monologue:
What will people say? How will we face the community? What about our honour?
And finally the ultimatum.
Stop this, or you will be disowned forever.
The script is the same in this town. Except, we don’t talk about it publicly. We let it
fester like a gangrenous wound, oozing resentment and silent assumptions. So let’s talk shall we, before we are forced to chop the whole damn leg off.
The one question I get asked more than any other is,
Why don’t you let your women marry our men?
Marry not date. Commit not flirt. Embrace not skirt. Absorb not dip into.
I get asked this by taxi drivers, colleagues, askaris, friends, usually following the backhand compliment,
You are not like the usual Muhindis
Whilst well-meaning, I am deeply offended by this statement. But that is a whole other post.
They ask with genuine curiosity. As if, whatever wrongs Muhindis have committed, this is the thing they are most upset about. They really want to know.
Why don’t you let your women marry our men?
I can hear the whispers. Muhindis are racist. There I said it. I can hear you. But, what if there is more to it?
It must be the caste system? If lower castes (often darker skinned) cannot marry upper castes (often lighter skinned), then what hope in hell do you have of penetrating 2000 years of social conditioning?
Wait, that only applies to Hindus. Then again, it is still a big deal for a Hindu to marry a Muslim. Or even a Shia Muslim to marry a Sunni Muslim. Same religion. Same God. Still, big deal.
Let’s put this into context, arduous boys from different Indian ethnic backgrounds, even though both are equally brown, still have to fight to put a ring on it.
With over 80 different ethnic groups in India (according to the reliably inaccurate Wikipedia), still stuck up over ethnic differences, the battle has not yet reached the frontier of colour.
What, you thought Kenya had the monopoly on tribal prejudice?
But, let’s call it like it is. It is not as a big deal for a brown woman to marry a white man. In fact, it could be referred to as, ‘marrying up’ or ‘getting lucky’.
I was once married to an Irishman, and suffered through,
Oh, look at him. He’s just so fair. You are so lucky. You better work hard to hold on to him, or he will be whipped away.
And whispers of,
How did SHE get him?
I had to hold back from turning these women upside down by their sari petticoats, to shake some sense into their hair sprayed heads. He was the lucky one! Though I must have not worked hard enough, because the marriage is in the past tense. Of course my grandmother did tell me when it all fell apart,
How could it have worked out? He IS from a different community.
So then we ARE racist….right?!
When in doubt, blame the colonials! It must be a hangover from a century long colonial rule. Generations were born and buried under the British Raj in India. Along with afternoon tea, they left us with the unshakable belief that White is Superior. Lighter is Superior. Ergo White tops Brown. Brown tops Black. Pardon the unfortunate puns.
They were great at brain-washing; they managed to infect India with their Victorian prudishness. Before colonialism we had sexy Kamasutra. After colonialism, we got wimpy portrayals of sex in Bollywood; flames flickering, bees dipping into
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flowers, trains entering tunnels…I kid you not!
Oh, so it’s not our fault!
Maybe it is sex.
We have different attitudes towards sex. Getting pregnant outside of marriage is not uncommon in Kenyan society. With us, if you have a child out of wedlock, you may as well tattoo ‘Spoiled Goods’ on your forehead, and resign yourself to a lifetime of scorned upon spinsterhood. Maybe the difference is just so fundamental, that it terrifies us.
Then throw in the things we hear whispered,
They aren’t like us, you know.
In some Kenyan tribes, if your husband dies, you will be forced to sleep with his brother!
Oh thank Heavens. It is just sheer ignorance then. No wonder! We aren’t worried about letting our men marry your women, but our woman must be protected from strange, unfamiliar customs!
Back to the dreadlocked lover. Would it have been more acceptable if he wore a suit instead of overalls? Is wealthy black professional higher up on the food chain than poor working class brown man? Could it be a class thing?
Or maybe it is more innocent.
Maybe we just like familiarity. We are wary of difference. You have all been next to the brown person on a flight who pulls out their tin of smelly snacks. We know the airline serves food …but we want to eat what we are used to.
I admit, these are sweeping generalisations, and brown/black marriages do exist, but there is no denying it is taboo. This piece may seem flippant, but I truly want to understand. Because at the core of any prejudice lies a genuine belief of truth, a perverse logic. Maybe if I can understand precisely what that logic is, I can show how flawed it is.
Then we can save the whole Bollywood melodrama, and make love, not turn our backs in stony silence.
But back to dreadlocked almost husband for a moment. The biggest thorn pricking our temporary bubble of bliss, was the accusatory glares that came from Kenyans, mostly brown. They all seemed to scream
How dare you?
How dare you be with him – don’t you know WE don’t marry THEM.
Reminds me of the Five Monkeys Experiment.
Stay in the bubble that you belong. Don’t cross over to the other side. They aren’t like us. Marry one of your kind.
So perhaps there is a pus-filled boil of racism festering inside most of us, which has become a part of our cultural imprint….and the most astounding thing is, when it comes to marriage, we don’t even pretend to be apologetic about it. It just is. Like it or not.
You may read more of Aleya’s literary work here: www.chanyado.wordpress.com